Nebraska's last championship in football came in 1997—one year before the start of the BCS—when the Cornhuskers laid a whooping on Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, 42-17.
But as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, the Huskers' BCS bowl appearances began to dwindle. With the College Football Playoff era approaching this season, the Nebraska program is still solid, but it's not the championship-caliber one it once was.
If nothing else, under head coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska has been consistent. The Huskers have won either nine or 10 games per season—no more, no less—from the moment Pelini took over the program in 2008. Nebraska has even competed for three conference titles under Pelini between its time in the Big 12 and Big Ten but has yet to take home any championships.
The question constantly facing Pelini is whether he can get Nebraska back to the days the program experienced under former coach Tom Osborne.
Will Nebraska ever compete for a championship under Bo Pelini?
What does that require? It starts, as any coach will tell you, with the Jimmys and Joes.
Coaching matters, yes. Many of the coaches who have won national championships in the BCS era (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Les Miles) are still around. Some good fortune matters, too. Alabama would have been on the outside looking in during the 2012 national championship had Iowa State not stunned Oklahoma State. Instead, the Tide got a rematch of their regular-season loss to LSU (and won 21-0).
But, really, recruiting is the important foundation.
It is also an inexact science, but there are two trends in recent years that indicated a program had a shot at a championship-caliber roster: home state and class rankings.
The first is obvious. The more high school players per state, typically the more talent there is. In 2013, Football Study Hall broke down where college football players came from by percentage (from 2008 to 2013). Not surprisingly, Texas, Florida and California were the big three. Georgia, Ohio, Alabama and Louisiana came next. Rust Belt states Pennsylvania, Illinois and Michigan rounded out the top 10.
Lo and behold, every national champion from 2008 to 2013 came from one of those states. Furthermore, blue-blood programs like Alabama and Ohio State are located near other recruiting hot beds like Georgia and Pennsylvania, respectively, as well.
Not to mention, these programs recruit nationally.
Nebraska, meanwhile, ranked 38th in the distribution of recruits. With homegrown players harder to find, the Huskers make a living feeding out of states like Florida, Missouri, Louisiana, Illinois and California. Nebraska recruited Texas far more heavily when it was in the Big 12, but that pipeline has largely dried up with the program's move to the Big Ten.
If a program has to look elsewhere for players, it can be hard to land a top recruiting class. Sure, Nebraska has shiny first-class facilities and a top-tier tradition/atmosphere. But as Matt Brown of Sports on Earth wrote in February, that only does so much:
That storied history is not for nothing, but the further Nebraska is removed from that success, the less it matters. Nebraska's best claim aside from its history is its status as the only game in town, the sports team for almost everyone in the state. But that can go only so far.
In the last five years, the Huskers have just one top-20 class—the No. 16 class in 2011—and no top-10 classes, according to 247Sports. Twice, in 2010 and '14, Nebraska finished outside the top 25.
Now look at Florida State's, Alabama's and Auburn's classes from the five years leading up to their national championships. The difference speaks for itself.
These rankings are all from one site, but it does provide a snapshot into how programs are recruiting. Not surprisingly, it usually reflects the state of the program.
|Year||School||Average Class Rank (Previous Five Years)|
Bleacher Report colleague Michael Felder wrote in February that there's no such thing as an "average" recruiting class among the power-five conferences. Either a class is filled with quality additions or disappointments that will get a coach canned. That logic certainly applies to Nebraska. The Huskers' recruiting efforts have been mostly good—just not great.
Which is all fine if a program is content winning nine and 10 games a season. Most, in fact, would love nothing more than to have that. But if a program wants to hoist a championship trophy, it can't have a top-20 class once in a while. Not without a lot of work cut out for it.
Based on recent national champions, Pelini has a lot of work to do as a coach if he's going to overcome Nebraska's natural recruiting disadvantages.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.